On the Nature of Politics

by Don Boudreaux on January 30, 2007

in Politics

Some people might describe my view of politics as “cynical.”  I reject the charge.  I describe my view of politics as realistic.

Here are the final two paragraphs from my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Call me cynical but I doubt that most politicians who promise to solve (real and imaginary) problems by passing statutes truly believe their own rhetoric. They might not disbelieve what they say, but I’m convinced that politicians don’t ponder the complexities of reality deeply enough to convince themselves of the truth of what they proclaim. They say what they say and promise what they promise chiefly as a means of ascending to power and glory.

I suspect that people self-select into politics because they have an unusually large lust for being in the limelight and an unusually small concern for the ethics of the actions they must take to get there. And because enough voters stand ready to blame their own (real and imaginary) misfortunes on the evil doings of “the rich” or “the corporate elite,” unprincipled power-seekers are eager to ride this ignorance into office.

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lee January 30, 2007 at 7:35 am

So you are realistically cynical?

Keith January 30, 2007 at 8:11 am

If a zebra thinks (assuming he does think) the last thing he will see alive, no matter how lucky or long lived he is, will be the teeth of a lion, does that make him cynical or realistic?

Matt C. January 30, 2007 at 8:45 am

I think you answered your own question in one of the preceding paragraphs.

"Precisely because modern society is so wonderfully advanced in technology and in its ability to supply huge quantities of creature comforts, people are easily led to believe that Earth can become a paradise if only the right people are in charge and armed with power."

It's the false believe that good people in politics get to the top, especially in a planned society. This is exactly the opposite of what Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom. It is because the politicians have no scruples that they get to the top.

Mike January 30, 2007 at 8:55 am

So, if I am a classical liberal – would you urge me NOT to run for Congress or a state senate position? Do you think that little ol' me will have enough of a pulpit in my private life to spread the ideas of private property, the rule of law (not legislation), etc.?

David Z January 30, 2007 at 9:28 am

Mike – lots of people will point to the corrupting nature of politics, and the cynics like myself will urge you to resist the temptation to taint yourself.

Let all the bastards into politics – and hasten the decline. It's unfortunately going to take complete & total failure of the system in order to accomplish any substantial changes.

Ralph Hitchens January 30, 2007 at 9:33 am

There is a reflexive corellation between cynicism and "realism." Too reflexive. People get into politics at different levels and for different reasons, sometimes self-selecting but at other times pushed by those who know & respect them, and see them as best qualified for leadership positions. "Lust for the limelight" and small concern for ethics can certainly be found, but it's a stereotype at best. In my opinion.

Matt C. January 30, 2007 at 10:14 am

I believe you are correct to a certain extent. I believe that most young politicians believe what they are doing is right. The problem is that there will be a point in time when they have to choose what is "right" and getting re-elected. They must put a value on what they believe will get them elected and what won't. Unfortunately there are too few politicians who are that principled that they will risk losing a re-election.

The value part is even more terrifying, for me anyway. I don't need someone else putting a value on anything other what I put on it. That is the most deceptive part of "good government". They are still putting a value on what should be done rather than allowing consumers and individuals make the decision for themselves.

nathaniel January 30, 2007 at 10:47 am

See today's WSJ article on the tale of two bridges in the wake of hurricane Katrina– one privately owned and the other publicly owned. Guess which one was fixed first…


Nate January 30, 2007 at 1:09 pm

I agree with the post, but I'd add the following to the last sentence:

"…, and then enrich themselves at the service of these same 'evil-doers'."

rick January 30, 2007 at 2:08 pm

"I describe my view of politics as realistic."

So does everyone. I have never heard anyone describe their politics as unrealistic.

TGGP January 30, 2007 at 2:19 pm

People who are not realists describe their politics as idealistic.

Sam January 30, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Political power corrupts and is indifferent to the nature of the wielder. People who want to do good via political power have already accepted two principles at odds with morality:
1. The ends justifies the means.
2. The collective may operate by a different standard than may individuals.

True_Liberal January 31, 2007 at 8:41 pm

A couple of principles are at work in Congress today:

1) The Constitution is irrelevant.

2) The title of a bill is very important and is needed to promote its swift passage; it need bear no relation (or mey be contradictory) to a bill's contents and effect.

3) The unintended consequences of a law are of no concern to legislators, for they are governed onlt by good intentions.

(Am I being cynical, or merely realistic?)

pookahman January 31, 2007 at 10:43 pm

I do not see the obvious antecedent to "ignorance" in your closing sentence. Are you suggesting the problem is with the people? Are you chastising us for not being able to tell truth from fiction? I say that's an error–the "rich" and the "corporate elite" are the issue; they are the problem. Most of my misfortunes are due to their fear and their lack of charity.

Sam February 1, 2007 at 1:12 am

"Most of my misfortunes are due to their fear and their lack of charity."

Well, at least that's YOUR perception of matters. Politics, of course, have NOTHING to do with your misfortunes,.

Will C. February 3, 2007 at 9:40 pm

It is very rare that a politician in one of the large states gets elected unless the party bosses support him or her. It generally happens when the party thinks a race is hopeless and the sacrificial lamb pulls off an upset. Peter Fitzgerald, Illinois Republican Senator, was such an example. Those who have are not on an ego trip have strong belief in the system they are a part of, example – Bob Dole.

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